As with the body count in the Iraq War, there was disagreement. In the 1880s the police reckoned that there were 8,000 prostitutes in London. Evangelist organisations disagreed and claimed that there were as many as 80,000. The police did underestimate but the evangelists were also culpable. Evangelists had a broad definition of what constituted prostitution, and it included not just the paid mistresses of the English aristocracy but common law wives.   Whatever the definition London had plenty of prostitutes.  Tolstoy and Dostoevsky visited Victorian London and were astonished and disgusted by the numbers of women selling sex on the streets. Both men had used Russian brothels but had not witnessed public spaces defined by prostitution.

If London had an abundant number of prostitutes in 1888, there were a lot of customers to encourage the trade.   London had the City, the docks, the Woolwich military encampment, labour intensive food markets, industry, railways, central government and newly arrived and lonely immigrants.   Men wanted wives who were respectable but needed women who would satisfy desires that had to be kept secret from the mothers of their children.   Either way, women were expected to reflect the conceit of men.  Virgins were popular as both future wives and prostitutes.  Virginity indicated decency in a potential wife. Virginity may have had fetishist appeal for the male customers of prostitutes but it also had hygienic advantages.   The enticingly named Lock Hospital was founded in 1747 to treat venereal disease. As the British Empire spread, lock hospitals appeared elsewhere around the globe. The largest was in India. When the NHS was founded in 1948, Lock Hospital was incorporated into the nationalised service.


The average age of a prostitute in the Victorian era has been estimated as being between 18 and 22 years. It is impossible to confirm the accuracy of the figures but those able to observe what was happening insist that turnover was high. Prostitutes endured abuse, both physical and economic. Those suspected of being Ripper victims have become famous.   In the 19th Century not all the murderers of prostitutes left identifiable victims. Neither are there adequate records of the suicides of Victorian prostitutes.   There were too many working class Victorian casualties for all the dead bodies to avoid anonymity.   The men who killed prostitutes had used extreme violence well before Jack the Ripper arrived. Mutilated women were discovered throughout the Victorian age and before. In 1806, a dead eighteen years old Elizabeth Winterford had flesh torn from her body. In 1838 Eliza Grimwood had her throat cut and was stabbed in the abdomen and chest. Because of injuries, the corpse of Sissy Aldridge was unrecognisable. She was identified because of the borrowed boots she was wearing.  Aldridge was murdered in 1870.

There is, though, an element of truth in the playful fictions of Thackeray and Fielding.   Prostitution did enable some beautiful young working class women to climb the social scale and acquire an education and what were considered to be refined habits.   One lady wrote an elegant letter to The Times and described how she had been able to fund opportunities for her parents and brothers. To achieve that degree of social mobility a woman would have required industry, confidence, self-discipline and much pragmatism. The less fortunate prostitutes abandoned the career before they were prematurely old. If not, they buckled into degradation. Working class men may have spent less money on prostitutes than their upper class counterparts but, because they formed the majority of the population, most prostitution was between working class men and women.   Prostitution paid for alcohol but the gin also made the work bearable. Many sexual transactions occurred between men and women who were drunk. This increased the risk of violence. Israel Schwartz saw a man throw Ripper victim Liz Stride to the pavement. Used to rough behaviour between men and women, Schwartz walked by.


Millbank Penitentiary registered 18,000 prostitutes in the 1880s and completed a survey. Of the 18,000 inmates 4,558 had both parents dead and 3,540 had one parent no longer living. 40% of the 18,000 had worked as domestic servants. Prostitution attracted both lost souls and the defiant women who were unable to settle for traditional lopsided social and economic contracts. And there were women who were both lost and defiant. An American visitor to London observed, ‘As to servants and women of the humbler class, (they) were proud of having a gentleman to cover them.’

In every profession destiny and opportunity depend upon mentors. The favoured prostitutes were the mistresses of the aristocracy.   For the rest their fortune depended on the nature of pimps and those who owned the brothels.  Mother Cummins prospered in the early years of the 19th Century. She owned several brothels, and her establishment in St Giles had 200 beds. In 1861 St George’s Southwark had a population of 55,000.   The number of brothels in the District had perhaps decreased by 1861 but at one point the District had somewhere between 200 and 300 brothels.   Shoreditch was more respectable.  Entrepreneurial ambitions there settled for a 100.

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Not all the prostitutes were female. John Saul was implicated in the infamous Cleveland Street scandal. Saul claimed to earn an average of £8 a week. In the 1880s most wage earners had to settle for a pound a week or less. Post office telegraph boys aged between fifteen and seventeen were brought to Cleveland Street. Their customers were elderly men who had income well above that of post office workers. The Cleveland Street scandal occurred in 1889. Sodomy had been illegal from the sixteenth century and punishable by death until 1861. Not all the male or female prostitutes were adults. The price of a child for sex was five shillings.   In some instances the child would be offered by a parent but for homeless and abandoned children prostitution would have provided an alternative to starvation.


A N WILSON has interviewed Bruce Robinson the author of THEY ALL LOVE JACK.  Halfway through the interview Wilson mentioned that there existed a Harley Street surgeon who had a back room where children could be abused and killed. This particular service cost more than five shillings but it did include removal of the dead body. In his book LONDON IN THE 19TH CENTURY, historian and academic Jerry White devotes no more than a sentence to the murders. He describes the killings as a few and appears to justify his scandalous neglect by saying there were not many press reports. His lack of curiosity about establishment secrets taints an otherwise impressive book.

Technology provided alternatives to prostitution. Books were expensive in the 19th Century but their price did not prevent a significant trade in pornographic literature. Imitating what was happening elsewhere in publishing, pornographic books were exchanged and sold second-hand. Pornographic literature, though, was not available from provincial libraries. William Dugdale was born in Stockport in 1800 and prosecuted several times for publishing obscene material. His activities inspired the Obscene Publications Act of 1857.   Dugdale was a radical and in his early career published political texts. The pornography attracted income, and his radical texts became fewer.   London was eminent in the production of pornographic photography. A police raid in Pimlico of the studios of Henry Hayler discovered 130,000 photographs and 5,000 slides.   Henry, Mrs Hayler and their two sons appeared in some of the photographs.


While the prostitutes of Whitechapel were obliged to walk the streets their well-dressed colleagues would use the music halls and expensive restaurants. In the less reputable music halls the prostitutes would walk the promenades. In 1847 theatre owners had been compelled by the Lord Chamberlain to ban prostitutes from their premises. This was the age of ‘flagrant lewdness’ when bare breasted prostitutes waved from windows. In the theatres men were often impatient and had sex while they were still in the audience.  The prostitution industry connected restaurants, theatres, brothels, ‘accommodation houses’ and the streets, which may have been why Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were overpowered by the ubiquitous presence of London prostitutes.

After the prostitutes were banned from theatres they moved into dance saloons some of which, like the Argyll Rooms, were built to accommodate soliciting.   William Gladstone used to wait outside the Argyll Rooms so that he could perhaps save one of the fallen women. Waiting also saved him the two shillings entrance fee and the opportunity to lounge on velvet benches, drink, dance and observe.   In 20th Century America more than one jazz musician earned money playing in brothels and other illegal establishments. The Argyll Rooms lacked Louis Armstrong but was famed for its excellent orchestra.   As in the theatres, the prostitutes were forced from the dance saloons. The prostitutes moved to casinos but again were urged to move elsewhere. This was the story of prostitution in Victorian London but it is a worldwide phenomenon.   In 19th Century London prostitution never ceased because its practitioners, customers and mentors were adept at finding new locations and alternative establishments.   The poor of the East End lacked mentors, access to fashionable entertainments and the ability to purchase fine clothes. For the poor it meant dark streets and women risking what happened in Whitechapel in 1888.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.